Siem Reap, Cambodia travel guide

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Everybody loves the temples in Siem Reap, but tourism has opened up many new attractions across the city. If you’re in town, there’s plenty to see and do beyond Angkor Wat, as Jake Newby discovers

Cambodians are immensely proud of Angkor Wat – the temple even features on their national flag – and rightly so; it’s an awe-inspiring complex and the largest religious site in the world. The surrounding area (entrance fee $155 for one day, $310 for three days) features a series of temples radiating out from Angkor Wat and many of these are just as fascinating as the central temple, with must-sees including the smiling stone faces of Prasat Bayon, the intricately carved Terrace of Elephants and the overgrown site of Prasat Ta Prohm where tree roots and religious buildings are inextricably intertwined.

More remote temples, such as the red sandstone Banteay Srei and the less-visited Beng Melea are also incredible sites, but after a few days of touring ancient temples in the mud (during the wet season from May to October) or dust (in dry season), you shouldn’t feel guilty if you want to take a break from crumbling religious structures and carvings. Fortunately, the adjacent city of Siem Reap, which has expanded rapidly in recent years to service the tourist crowd, has plenty on offer for when you need a break.

When you’re tired of temples
For slightly less noble pleasures, the tiny Sombai distillery (176 Sombai Rd, +855 95 810 890; sombai.com) is well worth a visit. They take traditional Cambodian rice wine and infuse it with all manner of teas, fruits and herbs to produce some very tasty liqueurs, presented in hand-painted bottles. Call in advance to book a small tour of the low-key workshop and an all important free tasting.

Tonle Sap Lake is located 10 miles south of the city and provides a good change of scenery with boat trips available out to floating villages and markets during wet season. In dry season, visitors get the spectacle of whole communities of houses teetering high above them on stilts. Whatever time of the year, though, making your way out to the lake to watch the sunset with a few beers on a floating restaurant is worth the trip. Just be aware that reports of tourists being over-charged by boat drivers are common – take a tuk tuk driver you trust, or check with your hotel to see how much you should be paying before you leave (prices vary depending upon your exact destination and the season).

When you want some retail therapy
Like many throughout Southeast Asia, come morning Cambodia’s markets are vibrant, bustling onslaughts attacking all of your senses at once, and not to be missed. The Old Market in the city centre is touristy, but still sees plenty of local trade, while a little further out, the Phsar Leu Market (7 Makara St, Krong Preah Sihanouk) is worth a trip if you’re looking for a rustic, ramshackle and wholly more authentic market experience. Here you’ll find stalls selling everything from snails and pigs’ heads to fresh coconut and pineapple, pharmaceuticals to blinging jewellery – all under one roof.

After dark, Siem Reap’s night markets take over. When you get sick of wandering past the same fake football tops and beer brand T-shirts, head to the central Angkor Night Market (Angkor Night Market St, Krong Siem Reap; angkornightmarket.com) where you’ll find, well, more fake football tops and beer brand T-shirts, but also a range of stalls with independent, hand-crafted goods for sale. Remember to bargain hard.

For a more refined (and more expensive) take on local arts and crafts, there’s Artisans Angkor (Chantiers-Ecoles, Stung Thmey St, +855 63 963 330; artisansdangkor.com). Here, you can tour the workshops during the day, before inevitably being led to the large gift shop where items such as pure silk scarves will set you back $690. If you like, you can also pick up a giant totem for $27,000.

When you’re hungry

Pub Street is at the heart of Siem Reap nightlife and while the name may conjure up visions of Lockhart Road at its worst, it’s also home to a number of the city’s best restaurants and some surprisingly laidback bars.

The three branches of Khmer Kitchen (Street 11, Krong Siem Reap, +855 12 763 468; khmerkitchens.com) – both on and adjacent to Pub Street – are good places to sample the local cuisine, as the name suggests, the eateries offering authentic flavours at reasonable prices. The same can be said of the nearby Genevieve’s (Sok San Rd, +855 16 984 892; fb.com/GenevievesRestaurant) and Amok (Between The Passage and Old Market, Street 9, +855 63 966 441). The former offers certain Western dishes, while the latter’s menu features a tasting platter of
its namesake dish, a creamy coconut-based curry, with four different varieties that are each well worth sampling.

More adventurous eaters will find an assortment of insects, usually deep-fried, on sale from street vendors up and down Pub Street, but the best place to really experience these delicacies is Bugs Café (351 Thmey Village, Angkor Night Market St, +855 17 764 560; bugs-cafe.e-monsite.com). Here, a French owner has joined forces with a Cambodian chef to put together a menu of ‘insect tapas’ – dishes such as tarantula donuts ($62) and stir-fried scorpions with a spicy papaya salad ($54). The former tastes mostly of its deep-fried batter and the latter has a crunchy texture and an unusual, but likeable, flavour. Even if you’re unsure of their culinary merit, you get some good photos to freak out your friends back home.

Another place where you’ll find insects on the menu is Marum (8A, B Phum Slorkram, +855 17 363 284; tree-alliance.org), a training restaurant for disadvantaged locals, where a beef stir fry comes with red tree ants ($46). There are plenty of non-buggy options however, and the food, served in a lovely courtyard space, is tasty. Similarly, Haven (Chocolate Rd, +855 78 342 404; havencambodia.com), another training restaurant, also boasts a peaceful garden and excellent menu.

If you’re looking for something a little more upmarket, then pay a visit to Cuisine Wat Damnak (Wat Damnak Market St, +855 77 347 762; cuisinewatdamnak.com), which creeped on to Asia’s 50 Best list last year at number 50. They serve two seasonal set menus ($186 and $217) of dishes with a focus on local ingredients, such as Cambodian wild cinnamon churros.

Drinks-wise, look no further than Asana (Street 7, +855 92 987 801). The last traditional Cambodian wooden house in the Pub Street vicinity, its combination of being tucked away down a quiet alleyway and boasting a decor of large beds and hammocks is enough to make you want to stay until closing. The friendly staff and decent, reasonably priced drinks (cocktails from $31) seal the deal.

Where to stay
The area around Siem Reap – and, in fact, large swathes of the city itself – is a near-constant dust bowl during the dry season, so after a day spent in the back of a tuk tuk and clambering around ancient temples you’re going to want to come back to a hotel with a nice pool. Fortunately, there are plenty of these, with even small guesthouses often augmented by pleasant swimming areas. Some of the best value examples of this are in the Wat Bo area of the city, with spots such as Suon Angkor Boutique (from $232 per night, +855 17 571 852; suonangkorboutique.com) and La Residence Wat Bo (from $426 per night, +855 63 968 575; laresidencewatbo.com) being both far enough from the main roads to be reasonably quiet but close enough to the centre to still be walkable from Pub Street.

Know before you go

A visa on arrival service is available at the country’s major entry points for $271, though be aware that asking for tips at passport control (both in and out of the country) is common. Stand your ground and refuse to pay and they’ll usually back down.

How to get there

HK Express (hkexpress.com) and Dragonair (dragonair.com) will fly you from Hong Kong to Siem Reap direct for around $3,000 to $4,000 return. The flight takes two and a half hours. If you’re willing to go via a stopover en route, prices can be as low as $1,800.

 

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